Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised to really enjoy Of Beast and Beauty, since I enjoyed the two prior Stacey Jay books I read, in spite of the subject matter being less aligned with my interests. Anyway, Of Beast and Beauty perfectly fits what I've been looking for: science fiction fairy tale retellings. They are my favorite thing at the moment. Though not quite at the level of A Long, Long Sleep or Cinder, Of Beast and Beauty serves as further proof that such retellings are brilliant, putting a new spin on well-trod literary ground.
First up, to enjoy Of Beast and Beauty you will need to just accept that the planet these humans landed on is imbued with its own conciousness. There's a spirit in the planet, and it watched the humans arrive. Seeing that they weren't prepared for the alien landscape, the planet helped them adapt, changing their skin. Some people, being vain as they are, were disgusted by these adaptations (scales, thicker skin, claws, etc.) and determined that those who had evolved were no longer human. The smooth skins, unchanged from the skins we wear today, made a pact with dark magic to protect their domed cities, leaving the Monstrous to fend for themselves in a land that becomes more inhabitable for every year the domed cities thrive, because the planet's spirit is suffering from the dark magic.
Within this setting, you might suspect that the Beauty would be smooth-skinned and the Beast monstrous. In fact, it's the other way around, or, a bit like Pride and Prejudice, they're both beautiful and beastly. Looking at the story arc, Gem, the monster boy, serves the role of the beauty, held captive, traded by his father. Isra, the beast, is smooth-skinned, but not perfectly so. Mutations have cropped up even within the smooth-skinned humans, and, were she not the queen, would be exiled within the dome. However, Queens are important, as they must sacrifice their lives to keep the pact going; they must feed their blood to the roses.
As the fairy tale dictates, Gem and Isra fall in love, and their love just might be able to break the curse (this is not a spoiler, because it's revealed in the prologue). Their romance comes a bit out of left field, but once it got going, it was very adorable and shippable. They actually spend a couple of months together, tending the garden, slowly warming up to one another in spite of their prejudices. My favorite thing about their relationship is the way that they come to realize how subjective beauty is and how attracted they are to one another, even though society wouldn't necessarily deem either of them beautiful. That's such a nice message and contrasts with the model perfect hero and heroine in most novels.
Jay also spins in Gaston, in the figure of Bo. Like his counterpart, Bo is confident and impressed with his own prowess. He's had his share of the ladies in the dome, but now he's got his sights set on Isra, and the crown that comes with her. Though I see what Jay was trying to do with Bo, his character didn't really work for me. I like that Jay tried to show that he wasn't just a villain, but he was also creepy to a degree that I couldn't sympathize with him, even though he's got some good qualities.
What Left Me Wanting More:
The retelling is really quite brilliantly done and, if you can just accept the magic planet stuff, the setting is lush and fantastical. The ending of the novel, however, comes to a conclusion that, while aligning well with the original tale, contradicts somewhat with the other messages about beauty.
Though I do enjoy Stacey Jay's writing, she did not pull off multiple first person perspectives well. Isra, Gem and Bo all take turns narrating, and, despite the chapter headings, I regularly forgot whose head I was in, because they all sounded the same. I'm also not sure if Bo's perspective was entirely necessary, added as it was to show his depths, but I think he might have been easier to like had I not seen some of those thoughts. Some of the good would have shown through without using his perspective, perhaps more clearly.
The Final Verdict:
Of Beast and Beauty retells Beauty in the Beast in a wholly original fashion. Readers who enjoy fairy tale retellings will not want to miss this one.